Gospel Disproof #6: Satan


One of the most noticeable flaws in the Gospel story is God’s obvious Superman problem: if the hero is both invulnerable and unstoppable, how do you find anyone stupid enough to oppose him? Too many super powers make your hero “super”-ficial. There’s no drama (and thus no realism) because prospective bad guys haven’t really got a chance.

In monotheistic theology, the problem is even worse. If there’s only one God, and He’s both perfect and omnipotent, then the religion loses its ability to explain the existence of evil. If God can do anything, and if He would oppose evil, then evil cannot exist. But evil does exist, a fact that can neither be denied nor reconciled with a monotheistic God alone.

From such necessities, Satan is born. He is created, not by a perfect God, but by the narrative demands of the story. We can tell he’s a made-up character because what little we know about him reveals him as a shallow, two-dimensional character contrived specifically to supply God with a suitably threatening adversary. His nature and his personality are defined for him by the role in which he has been cast, and he never strays from that role. How could he? He’s just a character in a story!

For instance, Satan is supposed to be smart. Not just a little smart, but blindingly brilliant, more intelligent and experienced and cunning than any human who ever lived (which oddly enough does not stop ordinary believers from thinking they’ve been out-smarting him on a regular basis for years). So if he’s so smart, why doesn’t he realized that opposing God is self-destructively stupid? Here you are facing an omnipotent and omniscient Deity Who can turn you into dog food just by saying “Alpo.” You’re going to fight that? Duh.

But Satan is going to oppose God. No matter what a real person would do in Satan’s place, his narrative role requires him to be God’s adversary—at whatever cost to himself—and so God’s adversary he will be. He’s not intelligently selfish enough to value self-preservation, because if he were genuinely selfish, he’d realize there were more productive outlets for his talents than wasting them on a futile attempt to undo reality. A real Satan would be too smart to take the role the Gospel wants to hand him.

Or what about his perverse delight in evil? Again, narrative necessity overrides the constraints of ordinary realism. The story demands that Satan hate what is good and love what is evil, no matter how bizarre and unmotivated such affections would be in real life. Ok, so suppose Satan really does live by a value system that is the exact converse of God’s. Should he not, then, seek to lose the battle, to fail in his evil schemes, to behave stupidly and self-destructively, in order to avoid such good things as satisfaction and accomplishment and victory? Evil for the sake of evil ends up imploding from self-contradiction—even super villains have to pursue goals that are “good” as seen from some perspective.

Try as he might, Satan cannot escape the unrealistic and even contradictory requirements that his role forces upon him. The result is a cartoony, shallow charade, a caricature of what a villain ought to be, an unwilling straight man for the hero’s witty jibes. His motivations make no sense. His actions serve no real purpose, not even for himself. He exists purely as a plot device, someone for the Good Guy to be victorious over.

Granted, you can improve on the Gospel’s nemesis. Imaginative believers can take that role and embellish it, though each new storyteller will create a new devil, drawing from their own imaginations and cultural background in order to improve the tale. (Ever notice how the most realistic demons are the ones least suited to the role the Gospel would like to put them in?) But if you go back to the sources, if you go back to the Scriptures themselves, you find only the hollow, monomaniacal stock character, as immutable as he is impossible.

Satan is a major figure in Christian mythology, and yet there is surprisingly little that can be learned about him from the Bible. There is no Old Testament prophet who is the first to tell us about him. Moses says nothing about him (not even in Genesis 3—read it again). The patriarchs know nothing about him. David and Solomon and their successors are unfamiliar with him (the singular mention of him in I Chron. 21 may be a later addition). He shows up all of a sudden in post-Exilic literature as an already-familiar figure mentioned briefly in Zechariah.

The most ink Satan gets in the Old Testament is in Job, a strange little book whose theology is as foreign to the rest of the Old Testament as the people, places, and nations are foreign to the geography and history of Palestine. Though Job’s message—that God has a reason for allowing His chosen ones to suffer—is a message that has given it instant popularity amongst suffering believers, no pre-Exilic believer shows any familiarity at all with Job’s story, which would be pretty unusual if it had been part of godly tradition since before Abraham. It makes a lot more sense if Job’s story, and indeed the whole God-vs-Satan dualism, were a foreign import, brought back from Persia by the Pharisees (whose name, incidentally, is a pretty good transliteration of the Hebrew word for “Persian”).

Satan as a foreign import explains why Jews before the exile show virtually no awareness of Satan (and indeed, not even God pays any attention to him, according to Moses), while Jews after the Exile know all about him. They met him in pagan lands during their exile, and liked him so much that they invited him to come back home with them for a permanent gig. To cover up his status as an illegal immigrant, they “borrowed” some old passages, like the prophecy against the king of Tyre, and applied them retroactively to Satan. Sure, the verses don’t all fit, but just ignore that, because it’s the best they’ve got, Scripture-wise. Call it his certificate of adoption.

Yet, though New Testament figures seem to take Satan for granted, and speak of him frequently, there’s not much that can be said about him other than the idea that he is God’s enemy, and wants to do evil. He’s a boogey-man: when the NT authors want to threaten believers with some terrible danger, he walks out on stage and makes horrible noises and menacing gestures. Then he’s off again. He’s also a scapegoat: whenever anything goes wrong, and believers suffer consequences they don’t like or didn’t expect, here comes Satan to take the blame. He also serves as a warning (cue the background animation of the devil and his angels being cast into the eternal lake of fire).

What’s in it for him? Nothing, really. He’s got a job to do, a role to play. In fact, he is the role. Everything about him is defined by God’s need to have an adversary to blame evil on (and thus neatly avoid having to assume any responsibility Himself). As narratives go, it’s shallow, poorly thought-out and crudely executed. The only thing he does really well is to expose the Gospel as a myth. And even that’s not intentional.

Comments

    • Christina says

      The novel “Blameless in Abadon” uses that idea. Satan and Jesus are both different sides of God’s personality. God himself is depicted as being dualistic, with an evil side and a good side. And neither side is pure, either, even his good side has some evil and even his evil side has some good. So, his evil side strikes people down with cancer, while his good side sometimes intervenes to heal them, for example. And, conversely, his evil side may work to undo the blessings of his good side.

      It’s a rather interesting book that takes, as a conceit, that the Bible is true and runs with that notion. So, you see Noah haunted by the memories of all those he couldn’t save (and driven mad by it – desperately trying to go back and save those who perished in the Flood), Abraham and Isaac talking about how their relationship was destroyed forever by God demanding Abraham sacrifice his son (almost being killed by your parent is certainly a rather traumatic event! And Abraham, too, must live with the knowledge that, had the angel not intervened, he *would* have slain his son), and so on.

  1. sumdum says

    Usually I find the evil character more interesting than the good. Good is good for its own sake, evil needs a reason, a motive. But this article.. you ruined it. :(

  2. Daniel R says

    To me the weirdest part of the Christian conception of Satan is his role in torturing the unbelievers for eternity. Why would he do that? If he delights in evil, wouldn’t he want to *reward* the evildoers? Shouldn’t Hell be the most fantastic place ever?

  3. Janney says

    I’ve always had a fondness for church horror. But, more and more, the Satan Problem is overwhelming my appreciation for creepy weather and architecture and people.

    I sat through The Rite just recently, for example (inspired by true events, just like The Exorcist). Hannibal spends the entire movie telling the young hero that the Devil wants you to think he’s not real, that it’s all part of his plan, that when you dismiss demonic possession as a psychological disorder you’re falling right into the his trap, etc. But, in that case, why on earth would demons go around making people behave in otherwise inexplicable ways, like coughing up nails and guessing the contents of people’s pockets? And why, when Baal gets all up in Hannibal himself, would he actually say to our young hero priest, “Now do you believe in me?” (Or words to that effect.)

    I guess that’s not quite the same Satan problem you’re talking about, but it’s still people having to devise a truly fearsome enemy which, nonetheless, can be defeated by something like having your heart in the right place.

    (I prefer Drag Me to Hell, where people can actually send each other to hell—and pretty promptly, too—just because they’re upset about something. Now there’s some horror for you.)

      • sailor1031 says

        I don’t think that happens in hell. I saw this in a vision so I know it’s true: hell is where you spend eternity sitting in a small boat travelling through an endless building where there are little dolls and puppets on either side and the audio system plays “it’s a small, small world” non-stop FOREVER!

        I’ve been very,very good since that vision.

    • Kevin says

      Satan can also be defeated by human artifacts. Often, by graven images of a specific deity (you know, the kind that are strictly forbidden by You-Know-Who?).

      Every horror movie of note is pretty much the same. A supernatural, unkillable, eternal entity is defeated by some magic juju that suddenly appears in the hero’s hands at the last second.

      Even The Exorcist resorted to this meme. The devil invades the priest’s body, and the priest saves the girl by jumping out the window. Thereby … doing what, exactly? Killing the demon? I don’t think so.

  4. round guy says

    The disturbing part of the story to me is the supposedly omnipotent god not zapping Satan out of existence the second he rebelled, thus not having to consign billions to hell later. I thought he knew everything and could see at least the consequences of his own inaction.

    I guess you could also consider the implications of god’s failure in creating a being that would rebel in the first place.

  5. Richard Simons says

    In a comment on another blog yesterday, I asked a ranting fundamentalist about Satan. If God created everything and all of creation is perfect, where did Satan come from? The standard response (and pretty much the one from the fundie) is that he is a fallen angel, but in that case God must have goofed when making that particular angel. Like so much in religion, it just does not hang together.

      • John Morales says

        If the creation is not perfect, then either its creator was unable to create perfection, or it chose to create imperfection.

        (Neither alternative is in accordance with a perfect creator)

  6. clsi says

    I remember seeing an episode of Sesame Street, when I was a kid, in which Oscar the Grouch struggled with his inherently contradictory contrariness: he liked being grouchy, so being grouchy made him happy, but being happy, in turn, made him grouchy, and so forth. Little did I know that PBS was sowing the seeds of doubt that would one day lead to atheism. I guess the fundies are right to want to defund it.

  7. TomZ, a miasma of incandescent plasma says

    Youtuber 43Alley has a great video titled “Satan” that goes deep into the origins of the concept, which started as a “satan” (lower-case), which can be described as a naturally occurring block or obstacle in a person’s path to happiness, and evolved to the dude named Satan.

    Go for this video, stay for the “Atheist reads the bible” series.

  8. freebird says

    God: Hey Adam, it’s Me, I’m giving you free will to choose between Me and Satan.
    Adam: Right on, God, that’s cool.
    God: But don’t choose Satan. Or else you’ll DIE!
    Adam: Alright dude, don’t hafta get all Old Testament on me. But how will I know the difference; I mean, what if Satan impersonates you?
    God: I always tell the truth, and Satan always lies.
    Adam: Ok, then. Well, hey, there’s this guy over here that says you’re lying, that I won’t really die if I don’t choose you. Is that true?
    God:…
    Adam: Hey, God, the guy was right! I didn’t die, so that means that guy was telling the truth and you were lying! You’re Satan!
    God: Nuh uh! Well, err…See, I did sort of bend the truth a little. But you should have known better! And now I’ll make sure you and all of your descendants suffer and die forever and ever. Muahahaha!

    • had3 says

      It is ironic that the first lie in the bible is told by god. The apologists rationalize it by saying that god meant the processes of dying would start that day: of course when you ask them what god would have said if he meant “that day” to mean “that day” the apologists don’t have an answer.

  9. Hazuki says

    The etomology of the Semitic consonant cluster S(h)TN means “adversary.” Satan dates from an older conception of the Yahweh mythos where Yahweh hadn’t yet acquired the Platonic “omni-” attributes.

    Further, the Jews were heavily influenced by Zoroastrianism during the Exile; Zoroastrianism was a lot more dualistic than Judaism beforehand and explicitly had a good and an evil principle (Ahuramazda and Angramainyu), as well as a promised savior figure (saoshyant) and end-times eschatology.

    The reason this is all so schizophrenic is it’s the result of mixing Greek philosophy with Jewish nationalism tainted by Zoroastrian eschatology.

  10. abadidea says

    TL;DR: Satan is a lawyer in God’s employ, and while lawyers are, in fact, evil, the whole King of Hell thing is folk theology not even in the books.

    Most of what Christians “know” about Satan isn’t even in the Bible in the first place. Nearly all he does in the Bible is tempt people – ON GOD’S BEHALF. The entire archenemy ruling in hell thing is almost pure fanon, substantiated by a throwaway remark in Revelation, the world’s greatest acid trip. Half the things people say he did were actually done by an entirely different character… the snake is not Satan, Lucifer is not Satan, the Beast/Antichrist isn’t Satan, although apparently he is the Dragon. We’ll assume that New Testament phrase “the devil” in the singular is always Satan since they are associated directly a few times.

    I think this is the complete list of things Satan actually does in the Christian texts:

    – Makes a bet with God concerning Job and get permission to do what’s necessary to carry it out, which includes murdering children and servants. He appears to just be some angel hanging out who thinks humans are a lousy lot.

    – Tells David he should take a census. Yes, really. But apparently God told Satan to tell him that. As an excuse to smite David for trying to keep accurate books.

    – Gets told to shut up by God when he tries to trash talk Joshua. Again, he’s apparently just kind of hanging out in Heaven, trying to remind God that humans are losers. We’re at the end of the Old Testament already. That’s THREE references and zero heinous crimes on his own initiative.

    – Jesus repeatedly uses his name when he is accusing someone of tempting him or of possessing a person. Here – in the book of Matthew – is the first time he is ever accused of DOING anything not directly at the behest of God, inhabiting people’s bodies to cause them to do things. Satan directly tempts Jesus, continuing his established role as the angel who challenges humans on God’s behalf to prove or disprove their sincerity.

    – 1 John says the devil has been sinning from the beginning. This is the closest thing to Satan-Is-The-Fallen-King-Of-Hell theology. It appears to be in direct contradiction to everything that says God cannot abide the presence of evil, since it has been established that he routinely has poker-and-accusing-the-saints night with Satan at his throne.

    – Paul – who brought hellenized mystery cult theology to his naive Judaism – gives us the phrases “masquerading as an angel of light” and “turn aside to follow Satan.” He discusses Satan as someone he gives authority to torment people he’s not happy with. Once again, Satan only seems to do bad things that good people TELL him to do…

    – Jude says that Michael and “the devil” argued over Moses’ body. Doesn’t give any details except that Michael’s witty comeback is “Yeah well God’s gonna tell you to shut up! Because I’m not angel enough to tell you myself!” This absolutely SMACKS of folk tale even by biblical standards rather than anything literal.

    – Revelation, wow. This book should have never been made canon, and even Martin Luther wanted it struck from the canon, because it’s so freaking untenable as something to place trust in. Revelation says that its character The Dragon is Satan, and he will get a free thousand year stay in Chez Pit. All he really does in this book is try to eat a baby (and fail) before being tortured forever and ever and ever amen.

    The whole greatest-angel chose-to-oppose-God dancing-in-hell-stabbing-souls-with-a-pitchfork embodiment-of-all-evil thing is fan fiction.

    Citations:

    http://www.biblegateway.com/quicksearch/?quicksearch=Satan&qs_version=NIV

    http://www.biblegateway.com/keyword/index.php?search=dragon&searchtype=all&version1=31&spanbegin=1&spanend=73

    http://www.biblegateway.com/keyword/index.php?search=devil&version1=31&searchtype=all&startnumber=26&startnumber=1

  11. CJO says

    Hazuki:
    The etomology of the Semitic consonant cluster S(h)TN means “adversary.”

    Right, and it’s derived from a verb, meaning “to oppose, to cause to stumble,” which is why in Greek it’s rendered diabolos, the root of our “devil” but lit. “slanderer”. When it’s used as a title (not a personal name) in the OT, it’s Ha-Satan, “The Satan” and when it’s used without that article it’s taken to be a given person or an angel acting against God’s will or against the righteous who are supposed to be acting in God’s name and usually appears in English translations not transliterated as “Satan” but translated to “adversary”. So you’ve (OP) missed a number of uses of the term in scripture dating to (probably) before the exile.

    My take is that it wasn’t the concept of an adversary that the exiles brought back to Judea from exile, but the concept of absolutist dualism, providing a new category in which to place Ha-Satan as an entity of purest evil. Before this dualist conception, as in Job, “Satan” isn’t really God’s adversary, but humanity’s. That is, you could use “prosecutor” for “adversary”. Satan isn’t responsible for evil so much as he is a tattletale, reporting the sins of men to the Judge.

    And, from the OP:
    It makes a lot more sense if Job’s story, and indeed the whole God-vs-Satan dualism, were a foreign import, brought back from Persia by the Pharisees (whose name, incidentally, is a pretty good transliteration of the Hebrew word for “Persian”).

    Hebrew parash is a verb meaning “to separate, to make distinct” and the derived Aramaic term for a separate or sectarian group, p’rishayya is the likely etymology of the Greek transliteration “Pharisee”. The origins of the sects, Sadduccee, Pharisee, and Essene, was probably the Hasmonean period, well into Hellenistic times. There is no evidence of any such groups before the mid 2nd century BCE. Nor did the Essene writings written in opposition to the Pharisees found in the Dead Sea Scrolls make any reference to a foreign origin of Pharisaical Judaism. They call them “seekers after smooth things” (“smooth things” = halaqot) which is a pun on hallakah, “legal ruling or interpretation”. The obsession of the Pharisees was the Oral Torah which later became the rabbinical Mishnah and the Talmuds and it’s all about interpreting the Torah.

    However, while it’s likely not the origin of the name “Pharisee” you could be onto something as far as regards Persian influence. For centuries after the exile there was a flow of “returnees” from a large remaining Mesopotamian population of Jews, and, after all, one of the Talmuds is the Babylonian Talmud. Job, in particular is a mash-up, of a very old folk tale, which could well be Persian or Babylonian in origin, and a verse expansion, which is probably post-exile as you say. It’s not out of the quesstion that scholars have the etymology of Pharisee wrong, and that the name has a much older standing and was just adapted to the 2nd c. BCE sectarian situation. The idea has some merit in that it would have been diaspora Jews who were most in need of the hallakah that was the Pharisee’s stock in trade, for all the same reasons that it became the basis for rabbinical Judaism after 70 CE. (That is, Jews wishing to be observant but living far from the Temple while it still stood needed updated legal rulings relevant to their situation no less than the Jews as a whole did after there no longer was a temple.)

  12. Gregory says

    Satan is only indirectly evil. His great sin is pride: he is no meek, obedient, unquestioning extension of God’s will, but an agitator, someone with a will of his own who asks questions and demands answers. He does not mindlessly accept what he is told: he is a skeptic. He challenges an omnipotent, omniscient being because he doubts that God actually is omnipotent and omniscient.

    And that is why he is the reviled enemy of all that Good and True: the best way to stifle dissent is to make dissent itself into the very manifestation of evil. If everyone were a brainless sheep with total obedience to the Great Shepherd, there would be no evil. QED. The Christian Satan is not a literary device: he is the principle instrument of social control. Some strains of Satanism (including, oddly enough, a few atheist schools) elevate Satan as an icon of rationalism and inquiry… the very things that Christianity has traditionally held as pure evil.

    Yeah, I had a rather unorthodox religious education. :-)

  13. Francisco Bacopa says

    Clearly god is not omnipotent and Satan just might be humanity’s ally. If we interpret the Serpent as Satan, as many do, then we can see Satan is the truth-teller and Mister Tetragrammaton is the liar. Eve repeated what god had told her about the fruit. The Serpent said those things were false, that the fruit was good for food and would open her eyes and make her like God, knowing good from evil. What happened when Eve ate the. Her eyes were opened and she became wise and knew good from evil.

    God had to exile Adam and Eve from the garden and make our lives suck. God feared what we could become. After eating the fruit of knowledge, if we also ate the fruit of life, Adam and Eve probably could have kicked God’s ass.

    Kent Hovind says that pre-flood humans were bigger and smarter than todays humans. That’s what was going on with the Tower of Babel. It was a Serpent inspired turbolaser platform. And they had an area defense shield over it, so God could not directly smite it. And their shield generators were buried deep underground, so God’s Imperial Walkers were no use. God saved himself by introducing a computer virus that kept the tower builders’ computers from communicating.

    With the tower project abandoned, God thought he was safe. But no, the secret of shield tech survived. The only thing to do was kill off almost all of us with water and degrade our environment even more by getting rid of that protective “water canopy”. The serpent managed to escape with shield plans, but the tech base to build shields had been lost.

    After the flood, Satan gave the shield plans to the citizens of Sodom and Gammorah. They got a little uppity and started living it up before their shields were fully operational. They paid dearly

    Sorry to go on here. I really should move this to a Bible fanfic site. I can even make it slash if necessary. Maybe Enoch could ascend to heaven by consuming an angels semen. I’d rather have it be a female angel, but I’ll write Teh Ghey if that’s what the fans want.

    After the flood

  14. Vicki says

    The angel who says “non serviam” because zie* cannot respect or work for god-as-described-in-the-bible works for me as a character, but that’s thoroughly non-Christian: I think part Milton and part a modern worldview influenced by the Euthyphro dilemma and the idea that power does not inherently equal goodness. (And maybe from Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson.)

    That is not the Satan that Christians talk about, because they don’t want to recruit for what they see as the opposition.

    *”Angels are sexless unless they really make an effort.”

  15. Alex SL says

    Mostly interesting discussion with many factoids that I was completely unaware of. Very enjoyable.

    To the Satan is fandom argument it could be added that his physical appearance as currently conceived is very obviously inspired by pagan gods, especially Pan.

    It is really amazing how syncretic religions are – if you know history, which nearly nobody does to a sufficient degree. But their obvious syncretism and historical contingency puts the lie to their claims of being revealed truth just as much as their perennial failure to be consistent with observed fact.

  16. CJO says

    The idea of Satan owes more to Dante than to the bible.

    The idea of Hell as a manifold location of diverse and ironic punishment and the geography of such a place is due almost entirely to Dante. The modern conception of Satan as Lucifer, the fallen angel who rebelled against Heaven, is due almost entirely to Milton.

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